Sunday, August 30, 2009

Dolts ...

... The Poetry Wars.

Now, I'm not too keen on "explication," which too often ends up merely translating a poem into a dubious prose equivalent, and I certainly don't think "we have to try to interpret what their poems meant to the authors at the precise moment they were writing them." One simply needs to read what the poem says and allow that to work upon one's self - one's entire self, not just one's emotions. Above all, we have to determine what the words - poems, as Mallarmé pointed out, are made of words, not ideas - mean maximally, not just by themselves but in relation to each other. Of course, the problem with these students seems to be that they have swallowed hook, line and sinker a lot of ideological bullshit and have never really learned to think their way from point A to point B.

1 comment:

  1. Poetry for my students happens in a sacred grove where creativity runs naked and free and where no opinion is unworthy or fails to earn astonished praise. I tell myself: "Be warned: smile sweetly; learn to say 'how wonderful!'"

    Just as true on the Harriet poetry blogs as in the classroom. Just as true most everywhere online that someone talks about poetry. Just as true online and in PoetryWorld, whenever some declaims, "It's a poem because I say it is."

    Unfortunately, a lot of this is indeed ignorance and ideology. The various -isms throughout poetry behave no better, when regarding one another. I enjoy reading overviews of poetry criticism and poetry—such as Robert Peters' "Hunting the Snark" and Sam Hamill's "Avocations"—precisely because they take a more objective eye, and call the silliness what it is, silliness.

    I'd rather risk writing in a vacuum of no audience than engage with this ridiculousness.

    One final thought on ideology and indoctrination: It has become fashionable to denounce political correctness, and all its excesses, all the while forgetting that the impulse that original lay behind it was fairness, openness, and equal access to the forum of ideas. (It was originally a critique of and response to the domination, for example, of poetry but a bunch of dead white guys. That sort of unquestioned conservatism in the arts.) However, in rejecting every point that a student might make about valuing more than one interpretation, it's all too easy to throw out the bathwater as well as the baby.

    In other words, reactionary rejection of the silliness misses the point that it's not ALL silliness. Some of it has a valid point to make.

    So while I sympathize with the professor's need to point out that historical interpretations of Browning and Dickinson are solid, and definitely worth knowing, I do think he has put himself on the defensive here. He might, for example, have pointed out to the dolts in his class (and they are dolts, no argument there) that in fact there are other interpretations, rather than a flat statement of "You're wrong."

    Calling a student wrong, calling a professor wrong.

    This is what the "poetry wars" are all about these days: Everybody calling everybody else wrong. It's argument culture, not a discussion.

    So, my sympathy for this professor stops with his inability to have expressed himself more by eliciting thought in his students rather than just saying "you're wrong." His misstep in the classroom was to think that poetry, or any of the arts, can be evaluated using empirical results. It's not math problems, and it's not mechanical engineering.

    Bottom line: Pretty much everybody involved with this contretemps was equally doltish, equally wrong.

    Or so say I, who could also be wrong. (But I'd require proof.) ;)